“It’s Difficult To Be What You Cannot See”: The Invisibility of The Female Programmer

I recently watched the documentary CodeGirl. In it, one young female coder astutely observes that it is “difficult to be something that you cannot see”.

Even with the growing emphasis on STEM in classrooms across the world, women and girls are still finding it difficult to access the male-dominated tech industry. The lack of visible role models has seemingly served to discourage many from pursuing such a career or exploring their own interests within the field.

As Megan Smith observes in her Huffington Post essay on the subject:

In the Steve Jobs movie, we barely meet Joanna Hoffman and we don’t meet Susan Kare, both were a core part of the original Macintosh product development team. Their contributions literally changed the face of the Mac and our industry. In the Turing films, we don’t meet the many mathematical women who made up half of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII.

There are, of course, a great many examples (historic and current) of women and minorities doing exciting and groundbreaking work in technology. However, these stories, if told at all, are not well known.

One such story that is soon to be told in cinemas across the world, is that of three African-American women who, whilst working as engineers at NASA,  calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11. In a film aptly named ‘Hidden Figures’ the historic role played by Katherine Johnson and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, will finally be revealed.

Katherine Johnson 

My own research into these figures led me to a biography of Katherine Johnson by the National Visionary Leadership Project. The biography describes how, when she first came to work for NASA, Katherine had been  assigned to a pool of women, whom she herself described as ‘computers who wore skirts’:

Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. .. and  “they forgot to return me to the pool.” While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. [she] was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before.) She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged. 

Whilst we await the release of ‘Hidden Figures’, here are a selection of films that seek to promote the visibility of women and girls in the fields of tech and entrepreneurship:

Queen of Code 

The Story of Grace Hopper. A U.S Navy Admiral, Hopper contributed to the development of the first computer, Harvard Mark 1. Hopper also headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that by the year 2000 accounted for 70 percent of all actively used code. Passing away in 1992, she left behind an inimitable legacy as a brilliant programmer and pioneering woman in male-dominated fields. 

Black Girls Code

The 2012 Black Girls Code film and web series are incredibly inspiring to watch. They also serve to highlight both a growth in documentaries about girls and women who code and in the number of initiatives available that seek to introduce women and girls to tech. 


A documentary from the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Lesley Chilcott, CodeGirl seeks to inspire young women to continue to pursue their fledgling interests in STEM and entrepreneurship. The film follows groups of girls from across the world as they prepare for Technovation. Technovation is a yearly competition, which, since 2010, has encouraged over 5,000 girls from 60 different countries to submit their mobile app for consideration. 

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap seeks to expose the lack of female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap. The film raises the question: what would society gain from having more women and minorities code?






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